Compiled by Eamon Corbett
It’s springtime, the birds are singing, and so it’s the perfect time for a Nature on Campus update that doubles as a birdsong ID guide! Most of the notable sightings of the past few weeks have been singing birds, so I’ve added links to recordings of each from the Macaulay Library at Cornell. Have a listen, and you’ll get an intro to the most common sounds of spring on campus!
One note: for many species, the song that they use to attract a mate is different from the call that they use to communicate. The Cornell page has different sections for each, so I’ve noted which is more likely to be heard at Harvard for each species.
Red-tailed Hawks are still nesting on the Holyoke/Smith Center, on a ledge on the top right corner when looking from Mt. Auburn Street (see the photo below). Their calls are a loud “Velociraptor screech” that is commonly dubbed over videos of flying bald eagles in commercials to make the eagles sound more impressive and patriotic. Hear for yourself: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/sounds
Probably the most unusual bird sighting from the past couple weeks was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a type of woodpecker, reported by Caitlin Andrews and Jenni Haydek at JFK Park on March 31st. They aren’t common on campus, but it’s still worth keeping an ear out for their distinctively irregular “morse code” drumming sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-bellied_Sapsucker/sounds.
One of the most impressive songsters in the area is the Northern Mockingbird—one was seen on Dunster Street on April 13th. They mimic other birds in their song, and repeat one phrase four or five times before switching to a new one: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Mockingbird/sounds
Often as loud as the mockingbird and much more colorful, Northern Cardinals have been a vocal presence on campus lately, with reports from Kirkland courtyard on April 13th and 16th and near Memorial Church on the 15th. They have a characteristic whistled song (which both males and females sing), and a sharp chip call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds
Another reddish songbird is the House Finch, which has a pretty, warbling song, and can often be heard near the Holyoke Center or on Dunster Street, as it was on the 6th, the 15th, and the 16th (and probably other times too): https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Finch/sounds
Another very common species with a melodic song is the American Robin. No doubt most students would recognize the red-chested bird by sight, but the sound is equally distinctive once you learn it. They are frequently found on the ground in the yard, or in grassy lawns or fruiting trees around campus. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Robin/sounds
The Blue Jay, while a striking bird, has a less beautiful sound: a loud screeched “jaaaaay”: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/sounds. They were seen and heard by the Science Center on the 5th of April, at the MAC quad on the 6th, and elsewhere on campus the past week.
Uncommon species like the sapsucker aside, most woodpeckers on campus are Downy Woodpeckers, which have two different identifying sounds: one their drumming for food, and the other a “whinny” call that is usually the first sign that one is in the area: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/sounds. One was in Tercentenary Theater on April 9th, and they are often seen in the trees in from of the Museum of Natural History.
White-breasted Nuthatches are also tree-climbers, but unlike woodpeckers they can climb both up and down trees. They were seen in the Old Yard on the 5th and the 6th of April, and make a distinctive nasal call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/sounds.
There was a Wild Turkey on JFK Street on April 12th. It was a female, so unlike to be vocalizing loudly, but it’s worth keeping an ear out for the males, which do actually make a “gobbling” sound: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/sounds
American Goldfinches are molting into their colorful spring plumage, and there was one flying over Kirkland Courtyard on April 16th. They have a very complex song, with warbling and chattering phrases, but more often heard is their distinctive 4-note flight call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Goldfinch/sounds.
Finally, so as to avoid having an exclusively bird-related email, there was an Eastern Cottontail rabbit on Winthrop Street on April 16th, and my first butterfly of spring, a Cabbage White, in the yard on the 17th.
Enjoy the weather and the returning flora and fauna!